The scientific work of Francisco José de Caldas (1768-1816) reveals itself in this book as an enterprise made difficult by the lack of educational resources in colonial America and the scarce contact with the latest knowledge available in Europe at the time.
In sections 1 and 2, John Wilton Appel describes Caldas’ early career and his initiation into the scientific adventure through the teachings of José Celestino Mutis. Three factors were fundamental in Caldas’ development during the period 1796-1802: the French expedition to America to measure the shape of the earth, undertaken in 1735 by the Paris Academy of Sciences and directed by Charles Marie de la Condamine; the Boyal Botanical Expedition to New Granada, under Mutis’ guidance; and the visit of the eminent naturalist Alexander von Humboldt, accompanied by the French botanist Aimé Bonpland.
Appel recounts Caldas’ continous devotion to scientific research; Caldas arrived at the discovery of the hypsometric principle even when settled in the isolated life of provincial Popayán. When his dream of traveling with Humboldt and Bonpland did not come true, Caldas accepted Mutis’ proposal to become a member of the botanical expedition, completing a herbarium of the most effective species of cinchona and working on phytogeography. Appel contends that Caldas did not turn seriously to the study of plant life until his encounter with Humboldt and Bonpland, and that he found a scientific community when he began working with Mutis.
Sections 3 and 4 describe Caldas’ great work on the construction of the first astronomical observatory in Spanish America, in Santa Fe de Bogotá. His post as its director allowed him both to undertake a meteorological program and to organize the vast amount of data and the plant collections he had accumulated during his fieldwork in Ecuador. Utilizing the prestige of the position, he established a weekly scientific periodical, El Semanario del Nuevo Reino de Granada.
Caldas’ intellectual endeavors were abruptly shattered by the call for independence from Spain, and he took arms with revolutionary fervor, even though during this time he tried to keep the Semanario alive. He was imprisoned and then executed in 1816. With his death disappeared a constant supporter of science.